Have US, Turkey found common ground in Syria?

The United States seems to have found, at last, a middle course in Syria vis-a-vis Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

al-monitor US Secretary of State John Kerry waves as he boards his airplane before departing from Antalya, Turkey, May 13, 2015.  Photo by REUTERS/Joshua Roberts.

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weapons, united states, turkey, syria, qatar, jabhat al-nusra, free syrian army, bashar al-assad

May 13, 2015

For some weeks now, the Western media have been reporting that Turkey and Saudi Arabia have agreed to support jihadist groups in Syria and that the United States has been unhappy with that agreement.

Perhaps that is not really the case. To the contrary, the United States seems to have found, at last, a middle course in Syria vis-a-vis Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

For years the United States and Saudi Arabia have been piqued by Turkey and Qatar's support to groups like Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. But now the capture of Idlib by the Army of Conquest spearheaded by Jabhat al-Nusra, and military successes scored by the opposition against the regime in recent months, signal a change in the situation.

Let’s look at the details of the Idlib operation. Military experts agree that this operation required intensive coordination among the groups in the field and the foreign actors that support them. But there is something even more significant. Western media reported that the Idlib operation was conducted by jihadist organizations such as Jabhat al-Nusra, but that the Free Syrian Army (FSA), supported by Washington, also played an important role in the operation.

Charles Lister, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, a prominent US think tank, has spoken to some FSA sources who had taken part in the Idlib operation. FSA sources told him that the decision of the FSA to join the operation led by Jabhat al-Nusra was made by the joint US-Turkey operations room in Antakya. In other words, the United States seems to have modified its position on jihadist groups in Syria.

Previously, the United States was giving arms to groups it supported on the condition that they distance themselves from the jihadists and that they refrain from any joint action with those groups. The Idlib operation, however, shows that Washington is now more flexible when it comes to working with jihadists.

There is another change in Washington’s approach. Washington has refused to supply the opposition with anti-aircraft weapons, fearing they may end up in jihadist arsenals. However, a few days ago the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Khaled Khoja, announced on his Facebook page that the United States has changed its position on not supplying anti-aircraft weapons to the opposition. Some experts believe that this US change will allow the opposition to set up protected safe zones.

In short, Washington seems to have come closer to the positions of Turkey and Qatar in Syria. In return, Turkey, with the approval of the Saudis, is pressing Jabhat al-Nusra to sever its link to al-Qaeda. Turkey is also working on bringing together groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam to form a consolidated Islamist front, both against the regime and al-Qaeda.

With this formula, the argument between the United States and Turkey on who is the real enemy in Syria appears to have calmed down. Turkey will fight the Islamic State (IS), as the United States wants, and the United States will support the Islamist front organized by Turkey to topple the regime.

After months of debates and negotiations over whether the enemy is IS or the regime, Secretary of Defense [Ashton] Carter’s remarks a few days ago that the train and equip program will commence this week in Turkey makes sense.

That Washington is closer to the position of its Sunni allies in Syria doesn’t mean that the US fear of jihadists has passed or that it has fully changed its Syria policy. These are tactical moves by the United States to ease the tensions with its Sunni allies and to stay in the Syrian game.

In that case, how will this reconciliation between Washington, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar affect the conflict in Syria?

For some time now, the Syrian opposition has been making important military gains against the regime. These successes were made possible when the Syrian opposition groups finally managed to work together under Saudi, Turkish and Qatari pressures.

If Turkey and Qatar could unify the Islamist front, if the opposition is equipped with anti-aircraft weapons as reported, if the Saudis boost their financial support to the opposition, and if the Western-supported FSA continues to work with the coalition, then the military balance could turn in favor of the opposition.

But it is still too early to declare that the recent military successes by the opposition mean the beginning of the end for [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad. The regime appears determined to fight as long as Assad has Russian and Iranian support. 

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